Every so often, librarians are asked questions like ‘Why does the library have this book?’ or ‘Why did you let my child borrow this?’ In fact, most librarians will have been asked these questions at some point, and probably more than once. You may have asked them yourself.
The answer stems from a cornerstone philosophy of libraries, that of freedom of information, and the principle that 'freedom can be protected in a democratic society only if its citizens have unrestricted access to information and ideas.'1 This means libraries, particularly public libraries, don't censor; they provide and promote access to the widest variety of information possible, regardless of individual beliefs. It means striving to reflect the diversity of society, to help encourage the community to engage in conversation and promote understanding and tolerance.
We have to remember that a book which gives a particular point of view might be seen as wrong by one person, but right by another. And that's okay because a book is just one perspective, and is a snapshot in time.
What libraries do is provide a window into the past, present and future. Take a history book, for example. It might explain events of a specific period in time and from one perspective. Five, ten, or fifty years later, we may have discovered more about those events and a new book has been written, providing a new perspective. Is one right and the other wrong? Maybe, but maybe not. They're just different.
By making such books freely available through libraries (who it must be said don’t condone all the content of books, or the lives and opinions of those who write them), we can explore them, talk about them, gain a better understanding, and hopefully make our own informed decisions.
Similarly, librarians cannot monitor or restrict what children borrow unless they are legally required to do so, even if parents want them to. They can offer advice about books, which titles and authors are popular and why, though it’s impossible for them to have read all the books.
Libraries also offer guidance about the suitability of material by placing them in collections which indicate a target audience (eg: young adult fiction), however, every parent has a different opinion about what they consider appropriate for their children to read, and at what age. It's simply impossible, therefore, for librarians to decide what a child can and cannot borrow. Parents have an important role to play in being aware of what their children read--guiding their reading when they feel it’s appropriate, and discussing their book choices with them.
Someone once described libraries as having something in them to offend everyone. It’s true, and if books did not provoke us to think more, the world would be poorer for it. So next time you encounter a book that makes you think, remember the importance of libraries in making information and reading freely available.
1 Statement on Free Access to Information (Australian Library and Information Association).
Sarah Steed is our Consultant Librarian and reviewer. A former Children's and Young Adult Librarian, she has more than 18 years' experience working in public libraries. Sarah comes from a family of readers and has shelves full to bursting with books.